Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Regency Medicine

I've been under the cosh of a really horrible cold for weeks now. Not serious. Just a cold, even if it does make me feel h***ish some of the time.

It got me thinking about illness in the Regency period, though. It's fine for us -- we've got aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen and all sorts of other drugs. Besides, we've begun to understand what causes illnesses and how they can be cured.

The Regency, by and large, didn't.

Remember poor Jane, in P&P, who was laid up at Netherfield after being forced to ride there in the rain? Mrs Bennet wasn't worried that Jane would come to lasting harm, but people of the time did worry about colds, chills, and especially fevers. Think of Marianne in S&S -- Willoughby hears that Marianne is "dying of a putrid fever" which was, according to one of my reference books, another name for Typhus. Yet Marianne hadn't done much more than Jane. Both had been out in the pouring rain and had got thoroughly wet.

Fever cures were not great. And the term "fever" covered a wide range of illnesses. Dr Martin Howard (in his book Wellington's Doctors) says there were four types: typhus; malaria (intermittent fever or ague); and simple continued fever and remittent fevers including typhoid and dysentery. In places like the West Indies, there was also Yellow Fever which caused huge losses among British troops sent there -- possibly up to 70%.

Treatment was ghastly. This is treatment for Yellow Fever in the West Indies in 1801:

"The men on admission were conducted to a wash house containing warm and
cold baths. They were instantly bled to the quantity from 16 to 20
ounces. They were, on revival from fainting, which generally occurred,
plunged into a warm bath in numbers of 4 to 6 together and confined in by
blankets fastened over the machine till about suffocated. From hence they
were dashed into cold baths and confined until apparently lifeless.
Immediately after, a strong emetic was administered, they were carried to bed,
and a dose of calomel and James's powder given as a purge, which occasioned a
train of distressing symptoms for the relief of which they were bled again and
blistered from head to foot. They were bled a fourth and fifth time in the
space of 30 hours, and usually lost 60 to 70 ounces of blood."

I'm not surprised 7 out of 10 died. All that blood loss! Pints and pints of it!

Dr Howard cites an interesting trial of whether bleeding worked or not. In the 42nd Foot, during the Peninsular War, three surgeons managed a total of 366 sick soldiers; two surgeons did not bleed patients and one did. Of the two-thirds -- about 240 -- who were not bled, only seven died. Of the remaining 120 or so who were bled, 35 died. This was written up as a doctoral thesis in Edinburgh in 1816, not publicised, and so had no impact at all. The Regency kept on bleeding patients.

I'm going to stick to standard painkillers and the universal Scottish remedy for a cold -- hot toddy, with a good slug of whisky in it.



Elizabeth Hawksley said...

The treatment for Yellow Fever sounds ghastly. No wonder Cassandra Austen's fiance, Thomas Fowle, died of 'a fever' in the West Indies after treatment like that!

I hope you feel better soon.

Anonymous said...

I'd forgotten about him, Elizabeth. Poor Cassandra. And even poorer Thomas.

The first-hand accounts in Dr Martin's book are harrowing, even though he writes in a detached way about the horrors.

He wrote a companion book called, I think, Napoleon's Doctors, but I haven't read it. I think some approaches were different on the French side. Don't know if they were any better, though.

Anonymous said...

PS Sorry, Elizabeth, I should also have thanked you for the good wishes. I honestly didn't post this in order to get sympathy. It's just that having a longish cold made me grateful that I'm not in the hands of Regency doctors!

Jan Jones said...

Oh my goodness, Joanna, how appalling! I think I'd have deserted for a short space, purely so as not to be 'treated'.

Anonymous said...

Problem is, Jan, that the poor lads were probably much too weak from the Yellow Fever to walk, far less run away. And maybe, being Regency lads, they even thought that they were getting the best of treatment...

Makes me shudder.